Nov 25, 2009

Can Juveniles Be Imprisoned for Life?

In the 2005 case of Roper v. Simmons, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the death penalty cannot be imposed on offnders who were under age 18 when they committed a crime potentially punishable by death.  Four years later, the Court is considering whether juveniles can be sentenced to "life without possibility of parole" (LWOP) or whether such a sentence constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. The cases are Graham v. Florida and Sullivan v. Florida.  In both cases, under-age 18 offenders were sentenced to LWOP for non-homicide crimes.

The issue raises serious line-drawing problems.  For example, might an LWOP sentence be appropriate for a 17 year old murderer but not for a 10 year old murderer?  And if the Court were to decide that an LWOP sentence for a 17 year old is unconstitutional, why would it be constitutional to sentence an 18 year old or a 19 year old to LWOP?    

During oral argument, Chief Justice Roberts tried to arouse his colleagues' interest in a middle ground rule.  Roberts suggested that the 8th Amendment should not be interpreted as an absolute bar to an LWOP sentence for minors, but rather should be read to require courts to take an offender's youth into account when deciding upon punishment, and to make the sentence proportional to the seriousness of the crime.  I don't think that criminal defense lawyers will consider that an appealing compromise.

The outcome is hard to predict.  But with the death penalty already off limits and a widepsread belief that violent juvenile crime is out of control, the odds seem against a ruling that LWOP sentences for juvniles are unconstitutional in all situaitons.